Romance - Two Lectures

Romance - Two Lectures


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Romance, by Walter Raleigh
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Romance, by Walter Raleigh
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at
Title: Romance Two Lectures
Author: Walter Raleigh
Release Date: September 25, 2006 Language: English
[eBook #19367]
Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)
Transcribed from the 1916 Princeton University Press edition by David Price, email LOUIS CLARK VANUXEM FOUNDATION
4TH AND 6TH, 1915
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The period of English political history which falls between Pitt’s acceptance of office as prime minister, in 1783, and the passing of the Reform Bill, in 1832, is a period rich in character and event. The same period of fifty years is one of the most crowded epochs of our national literature. In 1783 William Blake produced his Poetical Sketches, and George Crabbe published The ...



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Romance, by Walter Raleigh
The Project Gutenberg eBook, Romance, by Walter Raleigh
This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at
Title: Romance  Two Lectures
Author: Walter Raleigh
Release Date: September 25, 2006 [eBook #19367] Language: English Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)
***START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK ROMANCE*** Transcribed from the 1916 Princeton University Press edition by David Price, email LOUIS CLARK VANUXEM FOUNDATION
The period of English political history which falls between Pitt’s acceptance of office as prime minister, in 1783, and the passing of the Reform Bill, in 1832, is a period rich in character and event. The same period of fifty years is one of the most crowded epochs of our national literature. In 1783 William Blake produced hisPoetical Sketches, and George Crabbe publishedThe Village. In 1832 Scott died, not many months after the death of Goethe. Between these two dates a great company of English writers produced a literature of immense bulk, and of almost endless diversity of character. Yet one dominant strain in that literature has commonly been allowed to give a name to the whole period, and it is often called the Age of the Romantic Revival. We do not name other notable periods of our literature in this fashion. The name itself contains a theory, and so marks the rise of a new philosophical and aesthetic criticism. It attempts to describe as well as to name, and attaches significance not to kings, or great authors, but to the kind of writing which flourished conspicuously in that age. A less ambitious and much more secure name would have been the Age of George III; but this name has seldom been used, perhaps because the writers of his time who reverenced King George III were not very many in number. The danger of basing a name on a theory of literature is that the theory may very easily be superseded, or may prove to be inadequate, and then the name, having become immutable by the force of custom, is left standing, a monument of ancient error. The terminology of the sciences, which pretends to be exact and colourless, is always being reduced to emptiness by the progress of knowledge. The thing that struck the first observer is proved to be less important than he thought it. Scientific names, for all their air of learned universality, are merely fossilized impressions, stereotyped portraits of a single aspect. The decorous obscurity of the ancient languages is used to conceal an immense diversity of principle. Mammal, amphibian, coleoptera, dicotyledon, cryptogam,—all these terms, which, if they were translated into the language of a peasant, would be seen to record very simple observations, yet do lend a kind of formal majesty to ignorance. So it is with the vocabulary of literary criticism: the first use of a name, because the name was coined by someone who felt the need of it, is often striking and instructive; the impression is fresh and new. Then the freshness wears off it,
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and the name becomes an outworn print, a label that serves only to recall the memory of past travel. What was created for the needs of thought becomes a thrifty device, useful only to save thinking. The best way to restore the habit of thinking is to do away with the names. The word Romantic loses almost all its meaning and value when it is used to characterize whole periods of our literature. Landor and Crabbe belong to a Romantic era of poetry; Steele and Sterne wrote prose in an age which set before itself the Classic ideal. Yet there is hardly any distinctively Classical beauty in English verse which cannot be exemplified from the poetry of Landor and Crabbe; and there are not very many characteristics of Romantic prose which find no illustration in the writings of Steele and Sterne. Nevertheless, the very name of romance has wielded such a power in human affairs, and has so habitually impressed the human imagination, that time is not misspent in exhibiting its historical bearings. These great vague words, invented to facilitate reference to whole centuries of human history—Middle Ages, Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, Revival of Romance—are very often invoked as if they were something ultimate, as if the names themselves were a sufficient explanation of all that they include. So an imperfect terminology is used to gain esteem for an artificial and rigid conception of things which were as fluid as life itself. The Renaissance, for instance, in its strict original meaning, is the name for that renewed study of the classical literatures which manifested itself throughout the chief countries of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In Italy, where the movement had its origin, no single conspicuous event can be used to date it. The traditions inherited from Greece and Rome had never lost their authority; but with the increase of wealth and leisure in the city republics they were renewed and strengthened. From being remnants and memories they became live models; Latin poetry was revived, and Italian poetry was disciplined by the ancient masters. But the Renaissance, when it reached the shores of England, so far from giving new life to the literature it found there, at first degraded it. It killed the splendid prose school of Malory and Berners, and prose did not run clear again for a century. It bewildered and confused the minds of poets, and blending itself with the national tradition, produced the rich lawlessness of the English sixteenth century. It was a strong tributary to the stream of our national literature; but the popular usage, which assigns all that is good in the English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to a mysterious event called the Renaissance, is merely absurd. Modern scholars, if they are forced to find a beginning for modern literature, would prefer to date it from the wonderful outburst of vernacular poetry in the latter part of the twelfth century, and, if they must name a birthplace, would claim attention for the Court of King Henry II. In some of its aspects, the Romantic revival may be exhibited as a natural consequence of the Renaissance. Classical scholarship at first scorned the vernacular literatures, and did all its work of criticism and imitation in the Latin tongue. By degrees the lesson was widened, and applied to the modern languages. Study; imitation in Latin; extension of classical usages and principles to modern literature,—these were the regular stages in the progress of the classical influence. When the poets of France and England, to name no others, had learned as much as they were able and willing to learn from the masters of Greece and Rome, the work of the Renaissance was done. By the middle of the eighteenth century there was no notable kind of Greek or Latin
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literature—historical, philosophical, poetical; epic, elegy, ode, satire—which had not worthy disciples and rivals in the literatures of France and England. Nothing remained to do but to go further afield and seek for new masters. These might easily have been found among the poets and prophets of the East, and not a few notable writers of the time began to forage in that direction. But the East was too remote and strange, and its languages were too little known, for this attempt to be carried far; the imitation of Chinese and Persian models was practised chiefly by way of fantasy and joke. The study of the neglected and forgotten matter of mediaeval times, on the other hand, was undertaken by serious scholars. The progress of the mediaeval influence reproduced very exactly the successive phases of the Classical Renaissance. At first there was study; and books like Sainte Palaye’sMemoirs of Ancient Chivalry, and Paul Henri Mallet’sNorthern Antiquities, enjoyed a European reputation. Then followed the period of forgery and imitation, the age of Ossian and Chatterton, Horace Walpole and Bishop Percy. Lastly, the poets enrolled themselves in the new school, and an original literature, suggested by the old, was created by Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge, and Keats. It was the temper of the antiquary and the sceptic, in the age of Gibbon and Hume, that begot the Romantic Revival; and the rebellion of the younger age against the spirit of the eighteenth century was the rebellion of a child against its parents. It is not needful, nor indeed is it possible, to define Romance. In the mathematical sciences definitions are all-important, because with them the definition is the thing. When a mathematician asks you to describe a circle, he asks you to create one. But the man who asks you to describe a monkey is less exacting; he will be content if you mention some of the features that seem to you to distinguish a monkey from other animals. Such a description must needs be based on personal impressions and ideas; some features must be chosen as being more significant than the rest. In the history of literature there are only two really significant things—men, and books. To study the ascertained facts concerning men and books is to study biography and bibliography, two sciences which between them supply the only competent and modest part of the history of literature. To discern the significance of men and books, to classify and explain them, is another matter. We have not, and we never shall have, a calculus sufficient for human life even at its weakest and poorest. Let him who conceives high hopes from the progress of knowledge and the pertinacity of thought tame and subdue his pride by considering, for a moment, the game of chess. That game is played with thirty-two pieces, of six different kinds, on a board of sixty-four squares. Each kind of piece has one allotted mode of action, which is further cramped by severe limitations of space. The conditions imposed upon the game are strict, uniform, and mechanical. Yet those who have made of chess a life-long study are ready to confess their complete ignorance of the fundamental merits of particular moves; one game does not resemble another; and from the most commonplace of developments there may spring up, on the sudden, wild romantic possibilities and situations that are like miracles. If these surprising flowers of fancy grow on the chess-board, how shall we set a limit to the possibilities of human life, which is chess, with variety and uncertainty many million times increased? It is prudent, therefore, to say little of the laws which govern the course of human history, to avoid, except for pastime, the discussion of tendencies and movements, and to speak chiefly of men and books. If an author can be
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exhibited as the effect of certain causes (and I do not deny that some authors can plausibly be so exhibited) he loses his virtue as an author. He thought of himself as a cause, a surprising intruder upon the routine of the world, an original creator. I think that he is right, and that the profitable study of a man is the study which regards him as an oddity, not a quiddity. A general statement of the law that governs literary history may perhaps be borrowed from the most unreasonable of the arts—the art of dress. One of the powerful rulers of men, and therefore of books, is Fashion, and the fluctuations of literary fashion make up a great part of literary history. If the history of a single fashion in dress could ever be written, it would illuminate the literary problem. The motives at work are the same; thoughtful wearers of clothes, like thoughtful authors, are all trying to do something new, within the limits assigned by practical utility and social sympathy. Each desires to express himself and yet in that very act to win the admiration and liking of his fellows. The great object is to wear the weeds of humanity with a difference. Some authors, it is true, like timid or lazy dressers, desire only to conform to usage. But these, as M. Brunetière remarks in one of his historical essays, are precisely the authors who do not count. An author who respects himself is not content if his work is mistaken for another’s, even if that other be one of the gods of his idolatry. He would rather write his own signature across faulty work than sink into a copyist of merit. This eternal temper of self-assertion, this spirit of invention, this determination to add something or alter something, is no doubt the principle of life. It questions accepted standards, and makes of reaction from the reigning fashion a permanent force in literature. The young want something to do; they will not be loyal subjects in a kingdom where no land remains to be taken up, nor will they allow the praise of the dead to be the last word in criticism. Why should they paraphrase old verdicts? The sway of Fashion often bears hardest on a good author just dead, when the generation that discovered him and acclaimed him begins to pass away. Then it is not what he did that attracts the notice of the younger sort, but what he left undone. Tennyson is discovered to be no great thinker. Pope, who, when his star was in the ascendant, was “Mr. Pope, the new Poet ” has to submit to , examination by the Headmaster of Winchester, who decides that he is not a poet, except in an inferior sense. Shakespeare is dragged to the bar by Thomas Rymer, who demonstrates, with what degree of critical ability is still disputed, but certainly in clear and vigorous English, that Shakespeare has no capacity for tragic writing. Dante is banished, by the critics of the Renaissance, into the Gothic darkness. So the pendulum of fashion swings to and fro, compelled, even in the shortest of its variable oscillations, to revisit the greatest writers, who are nearest to the centre of rest. Wit and sense, which are raised by one age into the very essentials of good poetry, are denied the name of poetry by the next; sentiment, the virtue of one age, is the exploded vice of another; and Romance comes in and goes out with secular regularity. The meaning of Romance will never come home to him who seeks for it in modern controversies. The name Romance is itself a memorial of the conquest of Europe by the Romans. They imposed their language on half Europe, and profoundly influenced the other half. The dialectical, provincial Latin, of various kinds, spoken by the conquered peoples, became the Romance speech; and Romance literature was the new literature which grew up among these peoples
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from the ninth century onwards,—or from an earlier time, if the fringe of Celtic peoples, who kept their language but felt the full influence of Christianity, be taken into the account. The chief thing to be noted concerning Romance literature is that it was a Christian literature, finding its background and inspiration in the ideas to which the Christian Church gave currency. While Rome spread her conquests over Europe, at the very heart of her empire Christianity took root, and by slow process transformed that empire. During the Middle Ages the Bishops of Rome sat in the seat of the Roman Emperors. This startling change possessed Gibbon’s imagination, and is the theme of his great work. But the whole of Gibbon’s history was anticipated and condensed by Hobbes in a single sentence—“If a man considers the original of this great ecclesiastical dominion, he will easily perceive that the Papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof. For so did the Papacy start up on a sudden out of the ruins of that heathen power.” Here, then, is the answer to a question which at once suggests itself. How do we get this famous opposition between the older Latin literature and the literature of those countries which had inherited or accepted the Latin tradition? Why did not the Romans hand over their literature and teach it, as they handed over and taught their law? They did teach it in their schools; grammar and rhetoric, two of the chief subjects of a liberal education, were purely literary studies, based on the work of the literary masters of Rome. Never was there an education so completely literary as the organized education of Rome and of her provinces. How came it that there was any breach between the old and the new? A question of this kind, involving centuries of history, does not admit of a perfectly simple answer. It may be very reasonably maintained that in Rome education killed literature. A carefully organized, universal system of education, which takes for its material the work of great poets and orators, is certain to breed a whole army of slaves. The teachers, employed by the machine to expound ideas not their own, soon erect systems of pedantic dogma, under which the living part of literature is buried. The experience of ancient Rome is being repeated in the England of to-day. The officials responsible for education, whatever they may uneasily pretend, are forced by the necessities of their work to encourage uniformity, and national education becomes a warehouse of second-hand goods, presided over by men who cheerfully explain the mind of Burke or of Shakespeare, adjusting the place of each, and balancing faults against merits. But Roman education throughout the Empire had further difficulties to encounter. To understand these it must be remembered what Latin literature was. The Latins, when we first discern them in the dim light of the past, were a small, strenuous, political people, with a passion for government and war. They first subdued Italy, and no very serious culture-problem resulted from that conquest. The Etruscans certainly contributed much to Latin civilization, but their separate history is lost. No one knows what the Etruscans thought. The Romans do not seem to have cared. They welded Italy together, and thereafter came into contact with the older, richer civilizations of the Mediterranean shores. The chief of these, in its influence, was the Greek civilization, as it had developed in that famous group of free city states, fostered by the sun and air, and addicted to life. In Athens, at
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the time of her glory, life was not a habit, but an experiment. Even the conservative Romans were infected. They fell under the sway of Greek thought. When a practical man of business becomes intimate with an artist, he is never the same man again. The thought of that disinterested mode of life haunts his dreams. So Rome, though she had paid little regard to the other ancient peoples with whom she had had traffic and war, put herself to school to the Greeks. She accepted the Greek pantheon, renamed the Greek gods and goddesses, and translated and adopted Greek culture. The real Roman religion was a religion of the homestead, simple, pious, domestic, but they now added foreign ornaments. So also with literature; their own native literature was scanty and practical—laws and rustic proverbs—but they set themselves to produce a new literature, modelled on the Greek. Virgil followed Homer; Plautus copied Menander; and Roman literature took on that secondary and reminiscent character which it never lost. It was a literature of culture, not of creed. This people had so practical a genius that they could put the world in harness; for the decoration of the world they were willing to depend on foreign loans. In so far as Latin literature was founded on the Greek, that is, in so far as it was a derivative and imitative literature, it was not very fit for missionary purposes. One people can give to another only what is its own. The Greek gods were useless for export. An example may be taken from the English rule in India. We can give to the peoples of India our own representative institutions. We can give them our own authors, Shakespeare, Burke, Macaulay. But we cannot give them Homer and Virgil, who nevertheless continue to play an appreciable part in training the English mind; and we can hardly give them Milton, whose subtlest beauties depend on the niceties of the Latin speech. The trial for Latin literature came when obscurely, in the purlieus and kennels of Rome, like a hidden fermentation, Christianity arose. The earliest Christians were for the most part illiterate; but when at last Christianity reached the high places of the government, and controlled the Empire, a problem of enormous difficulty presented itself for solution. The whole elaborate educational system of the Romans was founded on the older literature and the older creeds. All education, law, and culture were pagan. How could the Christians be educated; and how, unless they were educated, could they appeal to the minds of educated men? So began a long struggle, which continued for many centuries, and swayed this way and that. Was Christianity to be founded barely on the Gospel precepts and on a way of life, or was it to seek to subdue the world by yielding to it? This, the religious problem, is the chief educational problem in recorded history. There were the usual parties; and the fiercest, on both sides, counselled no surrender. Tertullian, careful for the purity of the new religion, held it an unlawful thing for Christians to become teachers in the Roman schools. Later, in the reign of Julian the Apostate, an edict forbade Christians to teach in the schools, but this time for another reason, lest they should draw away the youth from the older faith. In the end the result was a practical compromise, arranged by certain ecclesiastical politicians, themselves lovers of letters, between the old world and the new. It was agreed, in effect, that the schools should teach humane letters and mythology, leaving it to the Church to teach divine doctrine and the conduct of life. All later history bears the marks of this compromise. Here was the beginning of that distinction and apportionment between the secular and the sacred which is so much more
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conspicuous in Christian communities than ever it has been among the followers of other religions. Here also was the beginning of that strange mixture, familiar to all students of literature, whereby the Bible and Virgil are quoted as equal authorities, Plato is set over against St. Paul, the Sibyl confirms the words of David, and, when a youth of promise, destined for the Church, is drowned, St. Peter and a river-god are the chief mourners at his poetic obsequies. This mixture is not a fantasy of the Renaissance; it has been part and parcel, from the earliest times, of the tradition of the Christian church. History is larger than morality; and a wise man will not attempt to pass judgment on those who found themselves in so unparalleled a position. A new religion, claiming an authority not of this world, prevailed in this world, and was confronted with all the resources of civilization, inextricably entangled with the ancient pagan faiths. What was to be done? The Gospel precepts seemed to admit of no transaction. “They that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is an heavenly.” The material prosperity and social order which Law and Politics take such pains to preserve and increase are no part of their care. They are strangers and pilgrims in the country where they pitch their tent for a night. How dare they spend time on cherishing the painted veil called Life, when their desires are fixed on what it conceals? When Tacitus called the Christian religion “a deadly superstition,” he spoke as a true Roman, a member of the race of Empire-builders. His subtle political instinct scented danger from those who looked with coldness on the business and desire of this world. The Christian faith, which presents no social difficulties while it is professed here and there by a lonely saint or seer, is another thing when it becomes the formal creed of a nation. The Christians themselves knew that to cut themselves off from the country of their birth would have been a fatal choice, so far as this world is concerned. Their ultimate decision was to accept Roman civilization and Roman culture, and to add Christianity to it. Then followed an age-long attempt to Christianize Latin literature, to supply believers with a new poetry, written in polished and accomplished verse, and inspired by Christian doctrine. Of those who attempted this task, Prudentius is perhaps the greatest name. The attempt could never have been very successful; those who write in Latin verse must submit to be judged, not by the truth of their teaching, but by the formal beauties of their prosody, and the wealth of their allusive learning. Even Milton, zealot though he be, is esteemed for his manner rather than for his matter. But the experiment was cut short by the barbarian invasions. When the Empire was invaded, St. Jerome and St. Augustine, Prudentius and Symmachus, Claudian and Paulinus of Nola, were all alive. These men, in varying degrees, had compounded and blended the two elements, the pagan and the Christian. The two have been compounded ever since. The famous sevententh century controversy concerning the fitness of sacred subjects for poetic treatment is but a repetition and an echo of that older and more vital difference. The two strains could never be perfectly reconciled, so that a certain impurity and confusion was bequeathed to modern European literature, not least to English literature. Ours is a great and various literature, but its rarest virtue is simplicity. Our best ballads and lyrics are filled with the matter of faith, but as often as we try the larger kinds of poetry, we
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inevitably pass over into reminiscence, learning, criticism,—in a word, culture. The barbarians seized, or were granted, land; and settled down under their chiefs. They accepted Christianity, and made it into a warlike religion. They learned and “corrupted” the Latin language. In their dialects they had access neither to the literature of ancient Rome, nor to the imitative scholarly Christian literature, poetry and homily, which competed with it. Latin continued to be the language of religion and law. It was full of terms and allusions which meant nothing to them. They knew something of government,—not of the old republic, but of their own men and estates. They believed wholly and simply in Christianity, especially the miraculous part of it. To them (as to all whom it has most profoundly influenced) it was not a philosophy, but a history of marvellous events. When, by the operation of society, their dialect had formed itself, a new literature, unlike anything that had flourished in ancient Rome, grew up among them. This was Romance, the great literary form of the Middle Ages. It was a sincere literature, expressive of their pride in arms and their simple religious faith. The early songs and ballads, chanted in the Romance speech, have all perished. From a later time there have come down to us theChansons de Geste, narrative poems composed by the professional caste of poets to celebrate the deeds and adventures of the knights who fought the battles of Charlemagne against the Saracen invader. The note of this Romance literature is that it was actual, modern, realistic, at a time when classical literature had become a remote convention of bookish culture. It was sung in the banqueting-hall, while Latin poetry was read in the cells of monks. It flourished enormously, and extended itself to all the matter of history and legend, to King Arthur, Theseus, Alexander, ancient heroes and warriors who were brought alive again in the likeness of knights and emperors. Its triumph was so complete, that its decadence followed swiftly. Like the creatures that live in the blood of man, literary forms and species commonly die of their own excess. Romances were multiplied, and imitated; professional poets, not content with marvels that had now become familiar, sought for a new sensation in extravagant language and incident. The tales became more and more sophisticated, elaborate, grotesque, and unreal, until, in the fourteenth century, a stout townsman, who ticketed bales in a custom-house, and was the best English poet of his time, found them ridiculous. InSir ThopasChaucer parodies the popular literature of his day. Sir Thopas is a great reader of romances; he models himself on the heroes whose deeds possess his imagination, and scours the English countryside, seeking in vain for the fulfilment of his dreams of prowess. So Romance declined; and by the end of the seventeenth century the fashion is completely reversed; the pendulum has swung back; now it is the literature inspired by the old classical models that is real, and handles actual human interests, while Romantic literature has become remote, fictitious, artificial. This does not mean that the men of the later seventeenth century believed in the gods and Achilles, but not in the saints and Arthur. It means that classical literature was found best to imitate for its form. The greater classical writers had described the life of man, as they saw it, in direct and simple language, carefully ordered by art. After a long apprenticeship of translation and imitation, modern writers adopted the old forms, and filled them with modern matter. The old mythology, when it was kept, was used allegorically and allusively.
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Common-sense, pointedly expressed, with some traditional ornament and fable, became the matter of poetry. A rough summary of this kind is enough to show how large a question is involved in the history of Romance. All literary history is a long record of the struggle between those two rival teachers of man—books, and the experience of life. Good books describe the world, and teach whole generations to interpret the world. Because they throw light on the life of man, they enjoy a vast esteem, and are set up in a position of authority. Then they generate other books; and literature, receding further and further from the source of truth, becomes bookish and conventional, until those who have been taught to see nature through the spectacles of books grow uneasy, and throw away the distorting glasses, to look at nature afresh with the naked eye. They also write books, it may be, and attract a crowd of imitators, who produce a literature no less servile than the literature it supplants. This movement of the sincere and independent human mind is found in the great writers of all periods, and is called the Return to Nature. It is seen in Pope no less than in Wordsworth; inThe Rape of the Lockno less than in Peter Bell the whole . Indeedhistory of the mock-heroic, and the work of Tassoni, Boileau, and Pope, the three chief masters in that kind, was a reassertion of sincerity and nature against the stilted conventions of the late literary epic. TheIliad do men really quarrelis the story of a quarrel. What about? Is there any more distinctive mark of human quarrels than the eternal triviality of the immediate cause? The insulting removal of a memorial emblem from an Italian city; the shifting of a reading-desk from one position to another in a French church; the playful theft of a lock of hair by an amorous young English nobleman—these were enough, in point of fact, to set whole communities by the ears, and these are the events celebrated inThe Rape of the Bucket,The Rape of the Lectern,The Rape of the Lock foolish it is to suppose that. How nature and truth are to be found in one school of poetry to the exclusion of another! The eternal virtues of literature are sincerity, clarity, breadth, force, and subtlety. They are to be found, in diverse combinations, now here and now there. While the late Latin Christian poets were bound over to Latin models—to elegant reminiscences of a faded mythology and the tricks of a professional rhetoric—there arose a new school, intent on making literature real and modern. These were the Romance poets. If they pictured Theseus as a duke, and Jason as a wandering knight, it was because they thought of them as live men, and took means to make them live for the reader or listener. The realism of the early literature of the Middle Ages is perhaps best seen in old Irish. The monk bewails the lawlessness of his wandering thoughts, which run after dreams of beauty and pleasure during the hour of divine service. The hermit in the wood describes, with loving minuteness, the contents of his larder. Never was there a fresher or more spontaneous poetry than the poetry of this early Christian people. But it is not in the direct line of descent, for it was written in the Celtic speech of a people who did not achieve the government of Europe. The French romances inherited the throne, and passed through all the stages of elaboration and decadence. They too, in their turn, became a professional rhetoric, false and tedious. When they ceased to be a true picture of life, they continued in esteem as a school of manners and deportment for the fantastic gallantry of a court. Yet through them all their Christian origin shines. Their
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very themes bear witness to the teaching of Christian asceticism and Christian idealism. The quest of a lady never seen; the temptations that present themselves to a wandering knight under the disguise of beauty and ease; —these, and many other familiar romantic plots borrow their inspiration from the same source. Not a few of the old fairy stories, preserved in folk-lore, are full of religious meaning—they are the Christian literature of the Dark Ages. Nor is it hard to discern the Christian origins of later Romantic poetry. Pope’s morality has little enough of the religious character: Know then this truth (enough for Man to know), Virtue alone is Happiness below. But Coleridge, when he moralizes, speaks the language of Christianity: He prayeth best, who loveth best  All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us  He made and loveth all. The like contrast holds between Dryden and Shelley. It is perhaps hardly fair to take an example from Dryden’s poems on religion; they are rational arguments on difficult topics, after this fashion: In doubtful questions ’tis the safest way To learn what unsuspected ancients say; For ’tis not likely we should higher soar In search of heaven than all the church before. When Dryden writes in his most fervent and magnificent style, he writes like this:
I will not rake the Dunghill of thy Crimes, For who would read thy Life that reads thy rhymes? But of KingDavid’sFoes be this the Doom, May all be like the Young-manAbsalom; And for my Foes may this their Blessing be, To talk likeDoegand to write like Thee. Nor is it fair to bring Shelley’s lame satires into comparison with these splendors. When Shelley is inspired by his demon, this is how he writes: To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite; To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;  To defy Power which seems omnipotent; To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;  Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent; This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free; This is alone Life, Joy, Empire and Victory. Some of the great poets of the Romantic Revival took mediaeval literature for their model, but they did more than that. They returned to the cult of wild nature;
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